Friday, July 5, 2019

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

Portrait of filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché in 1912 

Filmmaker Pamela B. Green 

BE NATURAL:  THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ                B+                  
USA  (103 mi)  2018 d:  Pamela B. Green                 Official Site

There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art…The technique of the drama has been mastered by so many women that it is considered as much her field as a man’s and its adaptation to picture work in no way removes it from her sphere.  The technique of motion picture photography like the technique of the drama is fitted to a woman’s activities.
― Alice Guy-Blaché, Motion Picture World, 1914

Not particularly stellar filmmaking, which is unfortunate considering the massive importance of the subject, where the continuous music is overly bouncy and upbeat, not really a match for the more reflective aspects of the film, with a busy documentary stylization recalling Errol Morris, nonetheless, the subject matter is essential, mandatory viewing, literally altering the course of cinema history, as French director Alice Guy-Blaché was there at the birth of cinema, right alongside the Lumière and Pathé Brothers, and Georges Méliès, likely the only woman filmmaker working anywhere in the world from the years 1896 to 1905, eventually directing, writing, or producing more than 1000 films, including 150 with synchronized sound, which is astonishing, yet until recently little was known about her, largely omitted from the history books, with most in the industry completely in the dark about her contributions to cinema, as they had never heard of her.  What this film reveals may be shocking to some, among the more important revelations in the history of cinema, yet part of the story is how it was suppressed for so long, taking over 100 years to finally come to light, which is simply absurd, where you have to consider the circumstances of who suppressed this history and why, and you get a picture of an industry where men typically devalue women, despite their professional talent, and are so ambitiously willing to get ahead that they place their names on films they didn’t make, which if it isn’t criminal, it ought to be, as the names of her male assistants or actors have been falsely listed by film archivists and historians as the directors of these early films.  The shock isn’t so much that Guy-Blaché made these films, instead it’s the massive scheme to delete her name from history, which nearly succeeded.  With such a daunting task, this may just be the beginning, the tip of the iceberg, with well over 100 interview subjects (many non-experts who seem randomly chosen), including Guy-Blaché’s daughter, Simone Blaché, a narration from Jodie Foster, and a walking tour of the film locations in Paris from Guy- Blaché’s films, cleverly superimposing the 100-year old films over the streets seen today, where a more thorough examination may yet be years away in the future, as a compilation of her entire output has not yet been established, as so many of her films were not preserved, but lost or destroyed from deterioration, as are 75% of all silent films.  Easily the most interesting authorities are the film historians and archivists who place Guy-Blaché in a historical context, though curiously, much of the extensive research to rediscover the wealth of her influence was done by Americans, not the French, who never took her seriously, content to listen to rumors and male-dominated appraisals, where they simply didn’t do the research, as even respected historical figures like Henri Langlois, the foremost and most famous film archivist of all time, founder of the Cinématheque Française and personally responsible for saving thousands of films, who actually knew her, refused to accept her place in history, completely unaware of the films she made.  Among the continuing problems, she’s not being taught in film schools, though now she is by far the most researched and studied female film pioneer.   

Trained as a typist and stenographer, viewed as a respectable middle-class job at the time, Alice Guy at the age of twenty-one was originally seeking a job opening from Felix-Max Richard at the Comptoire Général de la Photographie, a camera manufacturer in Paris, but he was out of the office, referred instead to the newly installed manager, Léon Gaumont, an engineer-inventor for the company who was not yet thirty himself.  Finding her letters of recommendation excellent, it was at that time highly unusual for a woman to have the requisite education and communication skills needed, suggesting he was concerned about her youth until she assured him, “It will pass.”  Knowing nothing about photography, she had to familiarize herself with the qualities of different cameras, types and sizes of plates, a variety of papers, focus lengths, chemical products, and shutter speeds, with women working 12-hour days at the time, earning twice the salary of her sisters and mother in their dressmaking jobs.  Both Gaumont and Guy were present in 1895 at the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale in Paris when Auguste and Louis Lumière debuted the first motion pictures to a small group of colleagues and friends, including a small vignette of 1895, Lumiere, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895) YouTube (1:55), where you notice that most of the workers are women, with the Lumière’s eventually becoming known as the fathers of cinema.  Shortly afterwards, Gaumont founded the Gaumont Film Company with other associates, the first and oldest film company in the world, making short films to promote camera projectors, with Guy believing they could improve upon the model of filming actual events by telling compelling stories.  Gaumont allowed this request so long as “the mail doesn’t suffer,” assigning her as head of production where she started directing films, mostly one or two-minutes in length, including THE CABBAGE FAIRY (1896), La fée aux choux, ou la naissance des enfants 1900 - Silent Short Film - Alice Guy YouTube (59 seconds), telling the story of how children are born in a cabbage patch, a variation on the mythical stork delivering babies, remade in 1900 and again in 1902, also years later in the U.S. where this is arguably the second narrative film ever made, after the Lumiere’s L’ARROSEUR ARROSÉ (1895) [4k, 30 fps] L'Arroseur Arrosé (The Lumière Brothers, 1895) YouTube (1:07).  Describing Guy’s film, Alison McMahan writes in her book Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema, 2002 (Lost Visionary - Excerpt | Alice Guy Blaché), “This film was so successful that it sold eighty copies and had to be remade at least twice, as the original prints disintegrated.”  Guy remained head of production from 1896 to 1906, where the practice of the day included rival studios placing spies inside, stealing stories daily and producing them overnight, with Guy using forensic techniques to track down the culprit, a night janitor who was quickly fired.  She also edited her own works, making dozens of short films in every genre, comedies, dramas, fantasies, Biblical epics, and Westerns, including dance and travel films, creating the first feature films, pioneering techniques like close-ups (previously attributed to D.W. Griffith), real locations, or adding hand-tinted colors, even experimenting with special effects, like running a film backwards, or utilizing double-exposure, split screens, masking techniques, and synchronized sound, such as the Phonoscène, using the Gaumont Chronophone Sound-on-disc system, though most of these early films are lost, as no one envisioned film preservation, which is another business entirely. 

When Gaumont expanded his business to Nice, he needed more filmmakers, where it was Ms. Guy who recommended Louis Feuillade from within the company, having worked with him before, buying many of his scripts, encouraging him to direct them himself, becoming legendary in his own right, eventually becoming Artistic Director of Gaumont.  She also met a British gentleman named Herbert Blaché who initially worked as a replacement cinematographer before becoming her production manager, and though Ms. Guy in an interview acknowledges a particular dislike for British men, they got married shortly thereafter in 1907 (in France at that time married women weren’t allowed to work), with Gaumont moving him to the United States where the two formed The Solax Company on the East coast, allowing her husband to handle the business end (with Gaumont distributing the films) while Guy-Blaché was free to run her own studio, the only woman to build and operate a movie studio, the largest pre-Hollywood studio in the United States.  She was known for placing a large sign in her studio that read “Be Natural,” solid advice to her actors at a time when the industry favored artificial poses.  Perhaps most astonishing, she placed men in women’s roles and women in men’s, basically having them exchanging places in THE CONSEQUENCES OF FEMINISM (1906), 53 The Consequences of Feminism 1906 - YouTube (6:57), which caught the eye of Russian film icon Sergei Eisenstein, who listed her in his memoirs (Hitchcock as well), where her influence is even more pronounced when showing her screen images and his side by side, as they are nearly identical.  Guy-Blaché distinguished herself by making films about parenthood, religion, feminism, immigration, labor conflict, and anti-Semitism, and was one of the first directors to employ an all-black cast, which came about as the white actors involved refused to work with blacks, which she viewed as a peculiarly American trait.  The inventor Thomas Edison introduced her to another, a capitalist monopoly, compiling so many patents over the technologies needed to create movies, eventually forming the Motion Picture Patent Company with a consortium of stockholders, including Eastman Kodak, establishing an Edison Trust that agrees to sell stock only to other stockholders, preventing unauthorized use of cameras, film stock, and projectors, basically shutting down film production, not to mention exhibition and distribution rights, unless they became stockholders, taking a giant cut out of their business interests and hiring mob-affiliated thugs to enforce the patents.  This single act drove the movie industry west to Hollywood, and may also have sabotaged her marriage, leading to a divorce, as her husband ran off to Hollywood with one of the studio’s leading actresses, Lois Weber, who quickly became more renowned than Guy-Blaché, with movie archivist and author Anthony Slide describing Weber as “certainly the most important female director the American film industry has known.” (Lois Weber Film Collection)  WWI profoundly affected the film industry, much of it due to an emergency need for the highly flammable nitrate in the nitrate film base for the munitions industry, all but destroying accumulated reserves of film stock, as it was deemed non-essential.  A fire eventually destroyed the Solax studios and Guy-Blaché’s career was over by 1919.

Returning to France in the 1920’s, Gaumont refused to re-hire her, allowing her reputation to be tarnished and forgotten, until Gaumont himself wanted to write the history of his legendary film company, turning to her for her recollections, as she was there with him at the beginning, but when he published the book, her contributions were omitted, which simply stunned her, as those omissions became the official historical record, making her case that much harder to prove, as she had no films in her possession.  Part of the beauty of the film is the persistence to unravel the truth, using investigative methods of a detective to track down relatives, family photos, letters, diary entries, and Guy-Blaché’s missing films, where the 150 or so that still exist are spread throughout the collections of 60 different film archives around the world.  While the story itself is eye-opening, perhaps the heart and soul of the film is captured in delightfully personal interviews with Guy-Blaché herself, believed to be from 1964, as she passed away in 1968, but they are utterly authentic and revealing, where she couldn’t be more charming while making her case that her place in film history had literally been stolen from her, with historians erroneously listing various men as the director of her films, based on hearsay and scant evidence, while she meticulously compiled a list to set the record straight, lecturing at universities and correcting historian errors, writing her own memoirs in the 1950’s, Autobiographie d’une pionnière du cinéma (with an English translation released in 1976), so by 1955 she was recognized with the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest nonmilitary honor.  In 2009, the Whitney Museum of American Art programmed 80 of her films (Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer | Whitney Museum of American Art), while in 2011 the Directors Guild of America awarded Guy-Blaché with a Lifetime Achievement Award ("2011 DGA Honors Recipients Announced").  Several books have been written about her, including Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema, by Alison McMahan, 2002, and Alice Guy-Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, edited by Joan Simons, Curator-At-Large for the Whitney Museum of American Art, 2009, and more than 60 of her French films were released on DVD in 2009, Gaumont Treasures (1897-1913) - Kino Lorber Theatrical, so certainly many others are equally well deserving of mention in rediscovering her legacy. 

Nine years in the making, this film became the personal obsession of a single filmmaker, basically resurrecting from the ashes one of the most prominent pioneers of cinema itself. Certainly one of the most astonishing aspects is just how completely eradicated she had been for over 100 years, where we will never see the faces of those responsible, though Léon Gaumont may be the most prominent figure in diminishing her influence within his own company, no small oversight, as well as her husband Herbert Blaché who for decades took credit for the films she made at Solax Studio.  What’s perhaps most surprising is the French dismissal of her influence, unwilling to hire her upon her return to France or give her credit for the films she made, instead inventing the big lie that some 1000 films were made by somebody else, anyone, as it couldn’t possibly have been a woman.  It really wasn’t until the digital age when celluloid could be transferred to a digital film that her films are finally coming to light, as it took technology that didn’t exist in her era to produce copies of films otherwise languishing in anonymity.  In one of the more amusing scenes, they actually have to bake the old film before it can be transferred digitally.  While she has gained stature, there are some that continue to insist she was just a secretary, a minor player in a burgeoning industry, unwilling to offer her the credit she deserves, using the erasure of history as their proof.  Her career resembles a convict convicted of a crime they never committed, released thirty or forty years afterwards, with some still insisting upon their crime, unwilling to acknowledge the initial mistakes made, as everything that came afterwards was predicated on a lie.  History is filled with lies waiting for someone to disprove them, like a great mathematical problem that hasn’t been solved, where one day someone will come along and solve the problem.  This film may not entirely do the job, as the director (who does graphics for Hollywood movies) seems intent on catering to the youth market and making it entertaining, using snappy visual effects or flashy animation, where scholarship and due diligence awaits the future of Alice Guy-Blaché, whose reputation has been elevated, but still remains something of an enigma, an unsolved puzzle that needs to be unraveled before Guy-Blaché’s name appears side by side with Georges Méliès and the Lumière Brothers.  Some may believe she’s there now, but male-dominated history books still omit her name or minimize her influence, which may be the most sexist revelation of the film, as there are likely so many other women out there as yet undiscovered. 

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